2014 NFL Draft: Small School Prospects to Watch During Draft Week

Eric Galko@OptimumScoutingFeatured ColumnistMay 4, 2014

2014 NFL Draft: Small School Prospects to Watch During Draft Week

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    Gregory Payan/Associated Press

    By now, most fans of the draft and the NFL in general know the top prospects. They know the quarterbacks and the playmakers. But the real excitement and intrigue that sparks added interest in a team’s draft class is the “sleepers” they draft that have a chance to turn a flashy draft into a franchise-altering one.

    Small-schoolers have become more talked about in recent drafts, and the 2014 draft isn’t light on non-FBS prospects with the potential for huge and immediate impacts as rookies. Here are seven small-schoolers that may go top 100 and potentially start as rookies.

Jimmy Garoppolo, QB, Eastern Illinois

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    STEPHEN HAAS/Associated Press

    Jimmy Garoppolo looks like he’ll be every quarterback-needy team’s fallback option. If a team doesn’t draft a flashier quarterback like Johnny Manziel, Blake Bortles or Derek Carr in the first round, they’ll likely have their eyes on the productive, quick-releasing quarterback leader from Eastern Illinois.

    Possessing good arm strength, Marino-esque release quickness and the football IQ to quickly pick up an NFL playbook and responsibilities, he’s a passer that teams would love to get their hands on to develop.

    He’s not a finished product, needing footwork development and getting acclimated to the speed of the game. He does also have some pocket presence concerns, but with his coach-ability and awesome upside, I’m expecting him to go very early in the second round.

Isaiah Crowell, RB, Alabama State

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    Jay Sailors/Associated Press

    The one-time Georgia Freshman All-American, Isaiah Crowell was reduced to playing in the SWAC the past two seasons, pushing the ultra-talented running back out of the headlines and out of the NFL evaluator mindset. However, based on his Alabama State film, and the fact that he’s stayed out of trouble, one could make an argument that he’s the most talented running back in this draft.

    He has the size and speed requirements, he’s a tremendous athlete as he readjusts downfield and he changes direction with purpose, explosiveness and control consistently. He still plays with a bit of over-aggressiveness when he attacks at the second level, but his physicality and angry running style should allow him for a quick transition to the pro game.

Terrance West, RB, Towson

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    After putting up 41 rushing touchdowns as a senior at Towson, Terrance West certainly deserves to get some national and scouting recognition. And production aside, his film suggests that, like Crowell, he could develop into the draft’s best running back despite hailing from a lower program.

    Built low to the ground and thick across his frame, West plays with both plus-strength in his lower half as well as explosive acceleration to get to his top speed quickly and take advantage of off-balance defenses for big plays despite his bulk.

    Add in his versatility as a pass-catcher and blocker and West’s impact could be immediately felt. Don’t be surprised if he’s the second or third runner taken in the draft, with the second round not out of the question.

Billy Turner, OT, North Dakota State

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    R Brent Smith/Associated Press

    Billy Turner needs a lot of work before he can start at tackle, or even guard, at the NFL level. His footwork is tremendously raw, his hand placement in pass protection is over-extended frequently and overall plays without much confidence against top tier competition based on the Senior Bowl.

    That all being said, Turner has near-elite mauling as a run-blocker and devastating pass-blocker upside if he can land with the right coaching staff and get time before he’s asked to perform. Ideally, he’ll slide inside to guard in the NFL and develop a minor kick slide and polish his hand placement, with the long-term plan of pushing him to the edge in a few years.

    He may be a bit of a project, but with his upside and natural strength as a blocker, he’s worth snagging in the first 100 picks.

Caraun Reid, DT, Princeton

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    Gregory Payan/Associated Press

    One of my favorite prospects in the draft, the Princeton product Caraun Reid can fill multiple roles for a defense and is scheme-versatile. The highly intelligent Reid was asked to play literally every defensive line role as a senior, and produced/caused disruption at each spot.

    With plus vision, redirect control and active hands as a rusher, Reid consistently caused offensive lines to plan and double team him when possible.

    While some 3-4 defenses will view him as an ideal 5-technique thanks to his athleticism laterally as a rusher and activeness against double teams, but I think he’d work best as a versatile interior option in a 4-3 defense. This is because he has the size to matchup against nose tackles and the lateral burst to generate pressure as a 3-technique.

    Either way, he fits for almost any defense, and the mid-second round wouldn’t surprise me as a landing spot for Reid.

Howard Jones, OLB, Shephard

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    Larry N.Souders/Associated Press

    After playing more of a defensive end role in college, Howard Jones of Shephard has the size, explosiveness and rushing ability to be a perfect 3-4 outside linebacker fit in the NFL. After blowing up at the NFL combine (see his full numbers here), Jones quickly went from a deep sleeper to a pass-rusher who may find a home in the early rounds of the 2014 draft.

    While the fact that he’s both raw and hails from a small school will be a detractor for some evaluators, the crazy athleticism and upside he possesses (along with a drop-off in pass-rushing talent after the first 50 picks) could force teams to bite early if they want to secure Jones. Don’t be surprised if the Shepherd product is gone before pick 80 on draft day.

Pierre Desir, CB, Lindenwood

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    Pierre Desir has everything you could ask for as a developing cornerback prospect. He has a reason for his rawness, coming from a program with limited coaching means. He has great length and size, possessing the third longest arms of any cornerback at the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine. And he has the character, motivation and clear-headedness to take to coaching and reach his potential in the NFL.

    At the Senior Bowl, Desir was able to dominate opposing receivers in red-zone drills, and he proved that when he’s allowed to use his hands and play physical, he can more than hold his own against the upper levels of completion.

    Desir graded out as the third cornerback at Optimum Scouting, above the likes of Justin Gilbert, because not only can he contribute as a rookie, but his upside and likelihood of reaching that peak is much higher than many evaluating him seem to realize. Don’t be surprised if he’s taken in the first 40 picks on draft day.